Cures for Irregularity, Upset Stomachs
and Other Ills
Nausea. Vomiting. Diarrhea. Constipation. Indigestion. Heartburn. Abdominal pain. Hemorrhoids.
No matter how healthy you are, chances are you've endured a gut-wrenching bout with digestive trouble sometime or another. Doctors say that the most disruptive is irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, a constellation of abdominal upsets that affects 20 million men and women. But whether or not you have IBS, you're likely to have some close encounters with intestinal distress that will send you hunting for a cure.
Doctors don't know why, but far more women than men are beset with digestive problems. If the problem is stress-related--as it often is--it can be gently eased with natural medicine, says Michael Gershon, Ph.D., professor of anatomy and cell biology at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center at Columbia University in New York City.
"People totally underestimate the impact of stress on the digestive system," states Kathleen Maier, a physician's assistant, herbalist and director of Dreamtime Center for Herbal Studies in Flint Hill, Virginia, and former adviser on botanical medicine to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Alternative healers like Dr. Gershon and Maier, among others, say that stress-reducing natural therapies such as yoga and meditation have proved helpful to many women.
A BAROMETER OF OVERALL HEALTH
Knowing how your digestive system is supposed to work is the first step in helping yourself prevent problems or heal them when things go wrong, says Maier. For instance, digestive problems can start when we don't take time out for simple rituals such as chewing our food properly and savoring what we eat, she explains. "So if your grandmother nagged you about chewing each bite of your food 100 times, she had good reasons," says Maier. Saliva contains specific enzymes that help break down complex carbohydrates. Without this enzymatic breakdown, food hasn't begun the proper digestive process.
But, of course, assiduous chewing isn't the only answer. Digestive problems have a wide range of possible causes. Many kinds of medications, including antibiotics and prescription steroids, can disturb intestinal peace; so can recreational drugs and alcohol. Any of these substances can wipe out beneficial bacteria, causing vague, unpleasant symptoms.
Natural approaches to digestive ills generally tackle problems from more than one angle, involving food therapy, vitamin and mineral therapy, herbal medicine and some form of mind-body therapy, like yoga or meditation.
CONSTIPATION: EASING ELIMINATION NATURALLY
You probably know the feeling only too well. You're bloated and you haven't, um, evacuated, for a couple of days. And now, you're getting pretty darn edgy. Constipation will do that to you.
Estimates suggest that at least once in a while, 50 million Americans get that internal going-nowhere-fast feeling, while 18 million are often troubled by it. And in another nod to the gene fairy's lack of fair play, twice as many women as men report being frequently constipated.
Happily, nature has ways to ease things along. Here are some of the best natural remedies for irregularity.
Give it time. The simplest thing that you can do to ease constipation is to give your body enough time to do its job, says Maier. "There's a psychological component to constipation for many women who subconsciously fear letting go of things," she explains. "Rampant in our culture, too, is the hurry-it-up factor. I say, relax! Give yourself sufficient time while you're sitting in the bathroom. For some women, time alone may be all that's needed."
To move your bowels, move your body. Exercise is an ideal way to jog your system into action. "The good muscle tone that results from a regular exercise program is important for optimal bowel function," says Maier. She recommends a brisk walk of a mile or two each day.
Forage for fiber. "Most women, even those who eat wholesome diets, can benefit from a daily fiber supplement," says James Scala, Ph.D., nutritionist and author of Eating Right for a Bad Gut. On average, women get about 12 grams of fiber each day, says Dr. Scala. They should be getting 30 grams a day.
Dr. Scala advises the women that he treats for constipation and other intestinal ills to take up to two tablespoons of fiber supplements three times each day. He suggests a generic natural-fiber laxative made from psyllium seed, stirred into water and swallowed about a half-hour before meals.
It's best to work fiber supplements into your diet gradually. Suddenly increasing your fiber intake can cause gas, cramps and diarrhea, says Adriane Fugh-Berman, M.D., former head of field investigations for the Office of Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
Drink early and often. Constipation is often a sign that you're not drinking enough water. So along with regular exercise and more fiber, drinking eight or more eight-ounce glasses of water a day can help provide relief, according to Maier.
Add in some apple juice. Apple juice works wonders because it contains sorbitol, a natural sugar with laxative properties. So a glass a day may be just what you need to get things moving again, according to Dr. Scala.
DIARRHEA: TOO MUCH GET UP AND GO
There's nothing subtle about the symptoms of diarrhea. The cramps are sharp, and the urge to go is frequent. But if diagnosing diarrhea is easy, tracking down its cause may not be.
An episode of diarrhea is often caused simply by eating foods to which you're sensitive. Some people have lactose intolerance or gluten sensitivity, so they will have problems eating wheat or dairy foods. A sudden increase in fiber intake or high-sugar foods can also cause problems, as can gas-producing vegetables such as brussels sprouts and cabbage. Viral or bacterial infections can also irritate the intestine, causing the runs.
You've ruled out those suspects? Sudden stress, even subtle distress, can loosen your bowels; so can antacids, caffeine, antibiotics and beverages sweetened with sorbitol, a calorie-free sugar substitute.
You might even get diarrhea from your children--and not just because they delight in pushing your stress buttons. Mothers of tots in day care
are 10 to 25 percent more likely to acquire the runs than are moms of
stay-at-home children, according to one study. That's because it's easy for diarrhea-causing bacteria or viruses to spread among groups of yet-to-be-toilet-trained toddlers. Your kids pick up the germs and pass them to their caregivers--and to you.
With any luck, though, your particular blast of diarrhea won't last more than three days, especially if you try these natural remedies.
Roll some slippery elm. "Slippery elm is my favorite diarrhea remedy," says Susun S. Weed, an herbalist and teacher from Woodstock, New York, and author of the Wise Woman herbal series. She also speaks widely on the medicinal use of herbs at medical gatherings.
"Take a few spoonfuls of slippery elm bark (Ulmus fulva) powder, found at health food stores, and blend it with honey till you can roll the mixture into small balls. Dust the balls with additional slippery elm powder, store in a closed container and use as needed.
"I like to store them in little cough-drop tins," says Weed. "At the first sign of diarrhea, let a ball dissolve slowly in your mouth, and repeat as necessary." Slippery elm works because it contains a nutritive mucilage, which soothes intestinal irritation, she says.
Dry up some blueberries. In Europe, dried blueberries are highly recommended as an effective cure for simple diarrhea, notes Varro E. Tyler, Ph.D., professor emeritus of pharmacognosy at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and author of Herbs of Choice: The Therapeutic Use of Phytomedicinals. They contain pectin, a binding agent that helps dry up the problems. The antidiarrheal work is done largely by astringent tannins formed during the drying process, he adds.
In his book, Dr. Tyler suggests chewing and swallowing three tablespoons of dried blueberries. Or, boil the crushed dried berries in water for about ten minutes and drink the strained tea.
If you can't find dried blueberries in a gourmet or health food store, you can dry fresh berries in the sun or on a tray in a low-heat (150°F) oven overnight. Depending on the intensity of the sun and the temperature, drying time varies. Dry until no moisture oozes out when you squeeze a berry. But don't eat fresh blueberries for diarrhea, cautions Dr. Tyler. They may actually have a laxative effect.
GALLBLADDER PROBLEMS: NO STONES, NO PAIN
You may not even know where your gallbladder is, exactly. But if you have gallstones, you'll get a fast anatomy lesson--the hard way.
Linked by ducts to the liver and the duodenum, which is just below the stomach, the gallbladder stores bile, a fluid that helps your body digest fat.
Gallstones form when the bile becomes concentrated and crystallizes. The stones may lodge themselves in several different nearby ducts, causing severe pain and other problems. Gallstones are three times more common in women than in men.
Once a gallstone has gotten stuck somewhere, surgery is often recommended. But some changes in your diet can help prevent their formation, say healers.
Food Therapy: The Easiest Cure
A diet high in animal fat and low in fiber could be a prescription for getting gallstones, says Melvyn Werbach, M.D., assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles and author of Healing with Food and Nutritional Influences on Illness.
Conversely, a nutritional plan that lowers your fat intake and increases your fiber intake could make you stone-free for life. Here are Dr. Werbach's recommendations.
Consider vegetarianism. Gallstones are linked to eating animal foods such as meat and dairy. And you're less likely to get gallstones if you eat plenty of fiber. For these reasons, he advocates a vegetarian diet for women who've had gallbladder problems.
Say no to fats and sweets--and yes to fiber. If giving up meat and dairy foods is too restrictive for you, consider switching to a low-fat, low-sugar, high-fiber diet. What would a high-fiber diet look like? You might start out with a whole-grain cereal like bran flakes for breakfast, have beans for lunch (bean salad or chili) and high-fiber vegetables like corn on the cob and a baked potato with dinner.
Don't skip breakfast. To prevent stones, eat breakfast every day, says Dr. Werbach. Other than whole-grain cereal, you can try whole-grain toast, whole-grain pancakes or cooked oatmeal topped with bran and raisins.
Lose a few pounds. As soon as you weigh 25 pounds more than you should, you're increasing your risk for developing gallstones. Losing excess pounds seems to help reverse the process, says Dr. Werbach.
HEMORRHOIDS: SHRINK THE NASTIES
If you've had hemorrhoids, you know only too well why hemorrhoids are so very hated. Not only do hemorrhoids cause pain that's often severe but also they bleed sometimes. And when you see bright red blood in your stool, you may think that you're in serious trouble.
Even when they are painful, you don't need to be alarmed. "Hemorrhoids are swollen veins found in the anal canal below the rectum," says Max M. Ali, M.D., in his book Hemorrhoids: No Laughing Matter. Describing them as "little balloons filled with blood," Dr. Ali says that hemorrhoids are caused by constipation, bad bowel habits or pregnancy. In fact, hemorrhoids are almost an inevitable condition of pregnancy because the fetus exerts extraordinary pressure on the rectum.
If you have hemorrhoids, here's how to ease them naturally.
Bulk up. Eat plenty of vegetables and grains or use psyllium-based fiber supplements, say doctors. Fiber adds bulk, which contributes to larger, softer stools, and soft, bulky stools are easier on your hemorrhoids than hard, dry ones.
Dab on some witch hazel. Distilled witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) extract is a natural astringent, and astringents help shrink swelling. "Put witch hazel on a plain cotton pad, or use a cotton pad like Tucks that are presoaked in witch hazel. Apply to your hemorrhoids as often as needed to ease discomfort," suggests Maier.
Make an herbal sitz bath. Make two strong herbal infusions from dried comfrey leaves (Symphytum officinale) and dried calendula flowers (Calendula officinalis). Both herbs are known for their healing, anti-inflammatory and soothing properties, says Maier. Mix 1 tablespoon per cup of boiling water using ½ tablespoon calendula and ½ tablespoon comfrey, she recommends.
To make an infusion, pour hot water over the herbs and let them steep. In a one-quart canning jar, add 4 tablespoons of the blend to 4 cups boiling water; cover and steep for a half-hour. Strain the herbs, then add the infusion to a bathtub half-full of warm water. Sit in the bath for at least 20 minutes, recommends Maier. Do this once a day, or twice a day if hemorrhoids are very painful.
Smooth on an herbal salve. Like witch hazel, horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) salve has astringent properties that soothe and shrink swollen hemorrhoidal tissues, says Maier. It's available at health food stores.
INDIGESTION AND HEARTBURN: PUT OUT THE FIRE
That burning sensation. That way-too-full, I-can't-believe-I-ate-the-whole-thing sensation. That gassy, bloated feeling. Welcome to indigestion, an all-too-familiar discomfort that most women, especially most pregnant women, have felt on at least a few occasions.
Indigestion is a catchall word for problems with digestive functions. Symptoms can include heartburn (a burning feeling felt near your breastbone), nausea, cramps, belching and flatulence. Stress is probably a catalyst for indigestion, though scientists aren't exactly sure why. Eating too much or too fast is also commonly to blame.
One fast way to take the edge off indigestion is to use herbs, say natural healers. Here's what they recommend.
Sip herbal teas. "Chamomile and peppermint teas are wonderful for soothing tension-induced digestive troubles," says Andrew Weil, M.D., professor of herbalism and director of the Program of Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, near Tucson, and author of Spontaneous Healing and Health and Healing.
"When you make the tea, be sure to keep the teapot and your cup covered so that the vapor can't evaporate. A travel mug with a lid works well. The volatile oils in the vapor make the teas work," explains Dr. Weil. To be certain that you are getting pure chamomile, he advises buying the herb from an established health food store or other reputable source.
Try marshmallow tea. Teas made from the soothing herb marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) are excellent aids for your digestive system, says Maier. To make marshmallow tea, use a tablespoon of dried herb to a cup of boiling water steeped for a minimum of 40 minutes. Drink a cup of this once a day.
Slip slippery elm into your food. Powdered slippery elm (Ulmus fulva) soothes irritated mucous membranes and eases many digestive complaints, says Maier. Whenever you're troubled by indigestion, sprinkle a spoonful or two into your morning oatmeal or add it to stir-fry. Slippery elm also makes an easy addition to fruit smoothies--bananas or other fruit blended with milk or yogurt.
Yoga, Herbs and Fiber Cured
Yoga, Herbs and Fiber Cured
Carrie Havranek, a 23-year-old college graduate from Medford, New Jersey, turned to natural remedies for her digestive problems--with outstanding results.
"I've had a sensitive stomach for as long as I can remember," says Havranek. "Foods like garlic, tomato sauce, cucumbers and coffee disagreed with me.
"I was getting these sharp, shooting abdominal pains on a regular basis," she continues. "I'd wake up in the morning hungry, but I couldn't even finish my breakfast because of the pain. A couple hours later, I'd be starving again."
Havranek's problems worsened during the fall of her senior year in college when she had to decide between getting a job or going to graduate school. The pressure was intense.
"It got to the point where everything I ate bothered my stomach," she explains. "Pretty soon, I was only eating bland things like turkey sandwiches and bagels."
Havranek suspected her stomach trouble was hereditary--she says that her mother also has a very sensitive stomach.
"My mother is in her forties, and she has always had digestive problems. Her doctor told her to change her diet. She's now on a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet and eats fewer fattening foods. It has really helped. She's doing much better."
So Havranek wondered if she, too, could benefit from a dietary change. She was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which is typically characterized by abdominal pain and irregular bowel movements.
"The practitioner prescribed an antispasmotic, a type of medicine that is typically used for IBS, but also said that stress plays a big role in digestive problems, and she said that yoga could help reduce my stress levels," adds Havranek. "So I signed up for a yoga course at school."
The practitioner also recommended herbal teas--including chamomile, mint and ginger, known to soothe stomach distress--and more fiber, to relieve abdominal pain and irregularity associated with IBS.
"I became a fiber junkie," she admits. "I try to eat foods like fresh spinach at least once a day, and I drink Metamucil, a commercial fiber supplement, mixed with water.
"If stress seems to be getting the best of me and I can't get down on the floor to do a yoga position, I just take a nice, long walk or go to the gym."
Havranek says that she feels a whole lot better. Her irritable bowel syndrome is under control.
IRRITABLE BOWEL SYNDROME:
ALL QUIET BELOW THE BELT
"Irritable bowel syndrome is a catchall word for all sorts of digestive problems," says Dr. Scala. Often it's alternating constipation and diarrhea. "For women who have irritable bowel syndrome, certain foods and stressful conditions can cause incredible abdominal pain, diarrhea and even rectal bleeding." And the problem tends to be frequent or constant.
Because it has so many forms, IBS is known by a multitude of other names, such as spastic colitis, mucous colitis, spastic colon or functional bowel disease. If you have true colitis, the lining of the bowel is inflamed, infected or even ulcerated. There's none of these specific problems with IBS, even though the symptoms may resemble those of colitis.
Symptoms of IBS vary from woman to woman and will usually begin during the teen years or young adulthood.
Eating Right When Your Gut's Gone Wrong
The best ways to heal an irritable bowel are to modify your diet and your lifestyle.
"Women who follow special diets, manage stress and take nutritional supplements stand a good chance of easing their IBS symptoms for up to two years," says Dr. Scala. "You have to make a commitment to making some major lifestyle changes, but I promise you that you'll be richly rewarded when your symptoms start easing off."
Here's what Dr. Scala recommends.
Help yourself to flaxseed oil. Scientists have discovered that oils like flaxseed oil and fish oils are rich in the omega-3 fatty acid called EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), which is valued for its anti-inflammatory effects.
"Studies show, quite convincingly, that one of the best things that women with IBS can do for themselves is to add oils containing omega-3 fatty acids to their diets on a regular basis," says Dr. Scala. He recommends taking two tablespoons of flaxseed oil every day. It's all right to slurp it right from the spoon, but the oil is pretty tasteless. Instead, just add the two tablespoons of oil to your morning cereal. Or, take two or three fish oil capsules once a day before a meal, he adds.
You can even make salad dressing out of flaxseed oil, says Dr. Fugh-Berman.
Shun red meat. Women with IBS should follow a vegetarian diet or at least avoid red meat, says Dr. Scala. Fish is fine. Or, have some skinless turkey or chicken breast. You can also have the meat from game animals such as rabbit and deer that were raised on grasses instead of corn, he adds.
Make those veggies well-done. Your cookbook may tell you to steam green, yellow and orange vegetables till they're crisp-tender or al dente. But if you have IBS, Dr. Scala says, "Cook your vegetables till they're soft. You want to eliminate any sharp edges that can cause irritation." And, of course, completely raw vegetables are not advisable.
Go soft on hard foods. Be wary of chunky, sharp-edged foods, such as nuts. "Hard foods like nuts and seeds are more irritating than softer foods," says Dr. Scala.
If your love of hard foods makes eliminating them from your diet too difficult, then make sure that you chew them well, says Dr. Fugh-Berman.
Watch your Bs. Medications prescribed for IBS can increase a woman's need for B vitamins. "A good multivitamin/mineral supplement, one that includes all the B vitamins, is helpful to any woman who has IBS," says Dr. Scala.
Choose soluble fiber supplements over bran. Bran or a high-fiber diet is routinely recommended for people with IBS. But according to a study conducted by researchers in the Department of Medicine at the University Hospital of South Manchester in England, bran and other soluble fiber-rich foods may make IBS symptoms worse.
In the study, 100 men and women with IBS were questioned about their response to various forms of fiber. Fifty-five percent reported that their symptoms worsened after eating bran. After taking soluble fiber supplements such as psyllium, however, 39 percent reported an improvement in their IBS symptoms. Only 10 percent of those who took bran reported an improvement. Based on this evidence, the researchers say that soluble fiber supplements may be a better option than bran.
Mind-Body Therapy for Digestive Bliss
What happens in your head can have an impact on what's happening in your belly and below, say experts. "Your brain sends signals to your digestive system and influences activity there," says Dr. Gershon. And the reverse is true, too. Any distress that you feel in your bowel can also cause mental distress.
For women with IBS, learning to retrain the brain--and soothe the belly--is a key part of finding relief. Likewise, soothing the belly can bring profound relief to the mind.
Consider cognitive therapy. "When you have unpredictable, disruptive pain, as do many women who suffer from IBS, you can be overwhelmed by a profound sense of vulnerability," says Douglas A. Drossman, M.D., gastroenterologist, psychiatrist and associate professor of medicine and psychiatry in the Division of Digestive Diseases at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill. "Cognitive therapy allows women to focus on their IBS symptoms and to gain control over them."
In cognitive therapy, you'll probably be asked to keep a diary noting your symptoms and how they make you feel. During sessions, the therapist will examine your thoughts and feelings to help you reframe your ineffective responses. According to Dr. Drossman, women who successfully complete a 12-week treatment program using cognitive therapy can feel even better a year later. In other words, both the women and the doctors who tested them agreed that these were long-term, positive results.
Get a handle on stress. "Women who internalize stress, who 'implode' rather than 'explode,' have a harder time with digestive diseases because stress is definitely a precipitating factor," says Dr. Scala. He suggests that women with symptoms of IBS try yoga, massage, meditation, exercise or other stress-busting strategies.
Hypnosis may also be very helpful since it has been shown to help irritable bowel syndrome, adds Dr. Fugh-Berman.
NAUSEA AND VOMITING:
FIGHT THE URGE TO PURGE
There's nothing quite like vomiting to make us realize how little control we have over the physical shell we inhabit. No matter what its cause--illness or tainted food, motion sickness or drinking too much--once the wave of nausea overtakes you, vomiting is almost sure to follow.
But sometimes vomiting doesn't follow, and you're stuck with the nausea, that queasy, not-quite-but-almost-dizzy feeling that starts in your stomach. When nausea lingers, you'll know exactly why cartoon characters who feel nauseated are colored green.
For very welcome relief from nausea, turn to the world of natural remedies.
Try a wristband for relief. Acupressure, the ancient Chinese healing art, is the basis for a modern remedy that scientists say can control nausea and vomiting.
A simple wristband, called Sea-Band, presses a bead into the P6 meridian point called nei-guan on the underside of your wrist, a spot associated with relief of nausea by those who practice the oriental arts of acupressure and acupuncture. The effectiveness of the wristband was supported by a German research team that found that women who wore the bands for 24 hours after minor gynecological surgery were able to reduce postsurgical nausea and vomiting by 50 percent. You can find Sea-Bands in health food stores and in some drugstores.
Gentle yourself with ginger. Ginger is Chinese medicine's answer to Dramamine, the over-the-counter motion-sickness medicine.
"It's a wonderful antinausea remedy," says Maier. "Whenever you feel queasy, grate a teaspoonful of fresh gingerroot into a hot cup of tea or eat some crystallized gingerroot candy." You can find this candy in gourmet or health food stores.
Consider homeopathic help. "If you can match your symptoms to the correct remedy, using homeopathy at home can stem sudden, severe vomiting and nausea," says Michael Carlston, M.D., assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine.
"In my experience, some over-the-counter homeopathic medicines can relieve nausea and vomiting, especially if they contain the proper remedy for your specific symptoms," says Dr. Carlston. He recommends reading labels carefully to find out whether the OTC remedy fits the symptoms that you're having.
For motion sickness that's more dizziness than nausea, Dr. Carlston suggests trying Cocculus, a homeopathic remedy derived from Anamirta cocculus, known as the Indian cockle. If the nausea outweighs the dizziness, use Tabacum, a remedy made from the tobacco plant. With both remedies, follow the label directions and look for potencies of 6c or 12c, suggests Dr. Carlston. The "c" indicates a homeopathic remedy's level of concentration.